22nd Mar 2018

May's election win would still mean hard Brexit

  • If May's majority is not big enough, she will be trapped into the same situation, between pro-Brexit MPs and those against it (Photo: Number 10/Flickr)

British voters head to the polls on Thursday (8 June) to hold the first general election since voting to leave the EU last year.

Unless a shock Labour win happens, which experts say is unlikely, the results will not significantly change Conservative prime minister Theresa May’s plans for a hard Brexit.

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  • Corbyn's Labour has gained momentum over the past two weeks (Photo: Matthew Kirby)

In the past two weeks, May has run into several gaffes that made her campaign slogan for a “strong and stable” government look less credible.

She was forced to U-turn on a party manifesto pledge to reform social care for elderly people after it was met with outrage from the public.

Her decision not to debate other candidates on TV and to refuse some interviews also made her look weak.

The Labour party gained growing momentum and was able to attract a part of society that usually does not vote, such as young people.

Polls suggest Labour is closing the gap, but after failing to predict Brexit in the EU referendum last year, pollsters have lost credibility and their estimates are often taken with a pinch of salt.

A poll of polls, which takes account of ten results from the past week, collected by the Press Association, put the Tories at 44 percent and Labour at 37 percent. The Liberal Democrats are forecast 8 percent, the UK Independence Party (Ukip) 4 percent and the Greens 2 percent.

How big is big enough?

The main question for Thursday is how big the Tory majority is going to be. This could influence how difficult it will be for May to push through the politically sensitive results of the Brexit negotiations.

"I suspect that they [Conservatives] will return with a fairly comfortable majority. If you look at the average of the opinion polls, it suggests to me somewhere around 50-60 seats [majority],” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London told EUobserver, adding that it also depends on how many votes Labour can actually get.

The Conservatives currently have a majority of 17 in the House of Commons.

Bale noted that while Labour’s poll numbers have gone up recently, the Conservatives' have not gone down because they have managed to "suck up and hold onto the [anti-EU] Ukip vote”.

"If she [May] picks up a majority of 50-60, it would probably mean that she is in a better position to make compromises, because she won’t be so dependent, so reliant on the eurosceptic backbenchers,” Bale said.

May called the snap election in April to solidify her position, and it could allow her to make more compromises in the Brexit negotiations.

"Those compromises won’t be big, it will still be a hard Brexit, because we don’t want freedom of movement, that means we don’t want the single market,” Bale warns.

"But I think probably a bigger majority will allow her to get something closer to a kind of free trade agreement with the EU. Although in the party manifesto she talks about no deal being better than a bad deal, I think a deal is better than no deal as far as she is concerned,” he added.

Not winning a clear majority or a hung parliament would be an upset for the Tories.

But Iain Begg told EUobserver that a small majority for Theresa May is the likely scenario. Begg is a professorial research fellow at the European Institute of the London School of Economics.

“If the majority is not big enough, she will be trapped into the same situation, between pro-Brexit MPs and those against it, and her room for manoeuvre could be even smaller,” warned Begg.

On Wednesday (7 June) May and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn wrapped up their campaigns. Reacting to concerns over last week's London terror attacks, May said that she would change human rights laws if they "get in the way" of catching terror suspects.

It highlighted the Conservative’s shift towards a more authoritarian direction, even if it is more rhetoric for now.

"A lot of campaigning in rather illiberal poetry, she’ll [May] have to govern in prose,” Bale said, adding that May is more likely to focus on making existing legislation work, rather than passing new rules.

What happens to Brexit?

The EU plans to start negotiations as soon as 11 days after the vote, on 19 June. The bloc's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier hopes to brief EU-27 leaders on the state of the talks at the EU summit on 22-23 June.

However, experts warn that substantive negotiations might not start until the autumn.

"Administratively and bureaucratically yes, negotiations can start as soon as possible, on the government level maybe it won’t really start happening until the autumn, because of German elections,” Bale said.

The view from London is that the German elections, due in September, will hold up the EU for another few months, providing time for the British government to prepare for the talks.

"The EU side is not going to be in a position to make moves until the German elections and coalition building is over. I don’t think it will be Britain holding up the negotiations. The politically sensitive issues will only come up in 2018,” Begg anticipates.

Even though the Brexit referendum took place almost a year ago, Britain is under-prepared for the negotiations and it might be in the country's interest to buy more time.

"The British government is woefully under-resourced in terms of the kind of people who can do these negotiations, so really, the more time they can have and build up the resources they need, the better – they won’t be rushing to do much until the autumn,” Bale said.

The phasing of the talks will be the first hurdle. The EU wants to have “sufficient progress” on the divorce deal before discussing the future relationship with Britain, while London wants to see the two talks run in parallel.

"This government still operates under the illusion that we will be able to do the two at the same time,” Bale said.

Another politically toxic issue will be the financial settlement between the UK and the EU. The UK still questions whether it has any legal obligation to pay for the EU budget and funds once it is out of the union, according to an EU official.

But if voters hand May a confident majority on Thursday, she might be able to more easily convince her MPs to swallow a divorce bill.

May promises hard Brexit in Tory manifesto

In her party's platform ahead of the 8 June elections, the British prime minister has asked voters to let her negotiate Brexit without guaranteeing a final deal.

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UK election under way, as voters eye Brexit

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May's Tories fail to secure majority

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